Graham Robb’s Parisians: An Adventure History Of Paris pays tribute to Robb’s favorite metropolis with a kind of episodic opera-in-prose. It’s historical and novelistic, precise yet sometimes impenetrably impressionistic. It’s an experimental attempt to dig deeply into a place and let the soil speak for itself. Parisians wants to be the city it’s about. Sometimes it soars and sometimes it swoops, but it does both with enough joie de vivre to inspire readers to love it like a friend, faults and all.
Justly praised for his biographies Balzac and Rimbaud, Robb turned his Francophilic obsessions from people to the land with 2007’s The Discovery Of France, a geographical history in which he pedals through thousands of miles of countryside on his bicycle. He isn’t content to live in libraries or cathedrals—he likes alleys and pawnshops just as well. And he’ll look into a sewer too, if it leads him somewhere. Parisians is a culmination of this determination to truly see, from every available angle, what makes a city. Robb’s methods of showing it are all over the map.
There are hunchbacks: more than 6,000 of them in 1814, to be exact, as Robb glancingly mentions while following Eugène François Vidocq, the enigmatic ex-convict turned detective, on a case. Another factoid: Only 10 sinkholes open up in the city annually nowadays, thanks in part to “The Man Who Saved Paris,” Charles Axel Guillaumot, who was called in to assess the “mouth of hell” sinkhole that yawped in December 1774.
Miles Davis walks, talks, and flirts in the chapter “Lovers Of Saint-Germain-Des-Pres,” which incorporates the birth of existentialism and evokes the Nouvelle Vague, since Robb wrote the entire chapter in the form of a screenplay. “Expanding The Domain Of The Impossible” is an ingenious construction, a chapter presented as a kind of mock textbook with quizzes, and written in the voice of a documentary narrator, all to outline the events leading up to the student riots in May 1968.
Robb listens as Hitler appraises architecture, and roots for Proust to leave his apartment. He leaps over a hedge with François Mitterrand as bullets riddle his Peugeot, and bristles as Nicolas Sarkozy stokes the suburban riots of 2005. Robb—a British-born guide to a foreign country—constructs Parisians as an epic in miniature, a city to hold in his hands, perhaps by writing himself into its history as one of its master chroniclers.